Blast fishing

At Bucknell last semester, I researched the devastating effects of dynamite fishing on the marine life in the Philippines. Local fishermen use homemade explosives to kill the fish and scoop them out of the water. While the method is initially effective, blast fishing permanently destroys the coral and plant life. Decades of slow coral growth gone in seconds.

In Lewisburg, Pennsylvania the experience was academic and abstract. About 30 meters off the coast of Bantayan Island, the experience was directly in front of my fogged mask. We started snorkeling where the coral and marine life was still intact, taking the underwater camera down with us. Thick forests of blue coral appeared out of the water beneath my fins. Eager clownfish ventured out of their sea anemone homes to welcome us into their liquid world. I swam toward Carlie and turned around to see a giant jellyfish floating by- a dangerous ethereal orb.

We snorkeled at another location before moving toward shore. I noticed the coral and large fish begin to disappear. The coral forests looked as if they had been deforested by small underwater loggers. The starfish we found were exposed in their barren landscape. If this had been my first snorkeling experience, I wouldn’t have missed the fish and plant life. But after seeing such beauty minutes before, I felt robbed by past explosions caused by faceless fishermen.

The importance of the School of the SEA has never been clearer. Each marine protected area (MPA) the team organizes helps to protect and regrow this underwater paradise. The environment is something worth protecting today and everyday, yet my mind returns to small fishing communities using blasting as a last resort. Are homemade bombs the only option? Is it right for environmentalists to protect the natural environment at the risk of others profits? Is it our duty to provide alternative livelihoods for these people or focus on the coral we fight to save?

Giant Clam

There are no clear answers. The only thing I have found consistent throughout my time in the Philippines has been the relationship between human activity and the natural world. Our every action sets off a ripple that extends far beyond our limited knowledge of Earth yet our lack of answers is no excuse for inaction or the future will come too soon. 

Ba-utiful Ba-ntayan

It’s amazing how quickly one’s sleep schedule adjusts to the cycle of the sun and the sound of the tide. By the second or third day of my short stay, I was waking up at 5:30am as the sun’s rays peaked through the window shade above my head. In the evening, after the sun had set, my eyelids began to droop and I was never in bed much later than 10:00pm. Each day felt long and full, the way I imagined people felt long before electricity and flashing neon signs.

The School of the SEAs has a large fishing boat that we took out on Wednesday, my first full day. We had a wonderful meal with grilled fish, kinilaw (raw fish in vinegar and onions), pork, seaweed and rice. I ate with my hands along with the rest of the crew, feeling each grain of rice and small fish bone in my palm. My hand formed a personal connection with the food before it reached my tongue, an intimate exercise different from the use of a knife and fork. We spend the rest of the time snorkeling around the boat before returning to shore.

Ta Ta grilling on boat

I woke up early on Thursday morning, and by 6:30am I was out on the beach walking the white sandy shore. I took my journal along with me and sat down to write about the past couple of days while enjoying the warmth from the sun. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed movement and turned see a middle-aged Caucasian man walking toward our hut. I called to him and asked if he needed anything. He walked over and introduced himself. He was staying at a resort not far away and looking to lease property on the island. His accent sounded familiar. “Where are you from?” I asked him. “Denmark. Copenhagen” he replied and I couldn’t help but smile. “Hvordan går det?” I asked in the best Danish accent I could muster.

For those of you who don’t know, I spend Fall semester 2010 in Copenhagen studying Sustainability in Europe (see old posts). The culture, the language, the people fascinated me and I fell in love with the small Scandinavian country. And so, as I sat on the beach of a small island off the northern tip of Cebu in the Philippines, I was struck by the beautiful circularity of life in the form of a lone Danish man who happened to be walking down the sand that morning. Coincidence? Perhaps. But in the moment, there was nowhere else in the world I wanted to be.

Small table (left) and Boat (right)

On Friday, Carlie and I traveled into the main town. We went past Santa Fe, our municipality, all the way to Bantayan about 20 minutes away. When we arrived, the wet market was still open and I saw varieties of fish, clams, and even small sharks for sale. For lunch, we stopped at a cafeteria that served 8 to 10 different dishes. That is, 8 to 10 varieties of pork. Anna’s brother likes to say that if Filipinos could eat the soul of a pig, they would. I said a quick prayer for all the vegetarians in the world before I sat down for my meal.

After lunch we had to make one more stop before returning home but a tricycle was nowhere to be found. Tricycles here are motorcycles with a giant wooden carrier attached capable of holding up to 6 or 8 people. The heat of the sun was unrelenting and we paused to sweat when a motorcycle stopped next to us. Carlie and the driver exchanged pleasantries while I smiled and nodded as if I understood the conversation. Before I knew it, I was holding on to Carlie’s waist as the three of us flew down the road on the Angelo’s bike. Apparently, riding on the back of someone else’s motorcycle is a common form of public transportation, especially the provinces. (Don’t worry Mom, I’m writing this post with all limbs attached).

When we returned to the camp, dinner was not yet ready so Carlie and I walked to the resort nearby and ordered one San Miguel each. We sipped slowly and watched the small sand crabs scurry across the shore and into the shadows. I thought about the fish and rice that would be waiting for us next door and couldn’t help but smile in the evening air.